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Old 11-30-2009, 23:07   #1
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 3,751

By "Dick Stratton, Lieutenant Commander

It was a warmer than usual summer day in Clark, South Dakota when a rather large and ungainly young man, a recent high school graduate, set about finding his way in the world. The salivating Navy recruiter asked the youngster what it would take to have him sign up: "Why, I’d like to go to Australia." It was as good as done. After all, in 1966, if you were lucky enough to ship out on the USS Canberra, more likely than not, during the course of your hitch, there will be a port call to the ship’s namesake - Canberra, Australia.
This young man came from a solid, patriotic Norwegian Lutheran stock that believed when your country called, you answered. You did not go to the bus station but to the recruiting station. You did not go to Oxford, you went to Vietnam. So Douglas Brent Hegdahl III shipped out to boot camp in San Diego where he slept through the Code of Conduct lectures since he would not be fighting in the trenches. Lo and behold, he did get orders to the USS Canberra. At that time Canberra with 8 inch guns mounted on the pointy end and missiles on the round end was assigned to steam with the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. [And yes, She did have Canberra, Australia on Her Port of Call list.]
Doug’s battle station was the aft ammunition handling room for the 5 inch guns, located aft in the bowels of the ship. One morning he had the 0400 watch while Canberra was steaming down the coast of North Vietnam firing its 8 inch guns against targets of opportunity [bicycles, water buffalo and occasional trucks] on Highway 1. At about 0330 he rolled out of the rack. Being a prudent farm boy he locked all his valuables in his locker and then proceeded to go out on deck for a breath of fresh air before manning his battle station.
Now there is a non repetitive exercise in the surface Navy called "going out on deck when big guns are firing". If the concussion does not blow you over the side it will at least blow out your ear drums. But Doug must have slept though that safety lecture. He doesn’t know what happened. Either not being night adapted, or being without his glasses, or concussion did it, he ended up going arse over teakettle into the South China Sea about three miles off shore with no life preserver, no identification, no nothing. Meanwhile he watched the Love Boat merrily steaming over the horizon, firing at the coastline and never missing him for two days.
There is not much to do in the South China sea at 0345. He took off his boondockers and hung them around his neck in case he needed them when he reached shore. He stripped off his dungarees, zipped up the fly, tie off the cuffs and popped them over his head, as he was taught, to make a life preserver. He reports back to you that it didn’t work. [He missed the part about old dungarees, with holes, out of the Lucky Bag would have to be kept wet if they were to hold any air at all.] So he put on his trousers, socks and shoes [Sharks? Sea Snakes?].
Somewhere along the line he had heard that drowning was a "nice way to die"; so he thought he would try it out. He put his hands over his head and down he went - bloop, bloop, bloop. Now both he and I had heard the myth that when drowning you would get cuddly warm, all the nice things in your life would flash by in your mind and you would go to your eternal reward to the sound of music [harp?]. Doug resurfaced and reports back to us that it is all malarkey: there are no movies, there is no music and its colder than Hell!
As dawn came he started swimming away from the sun, hopefully towards shore. He could see the haze of land; but the harder he tried the further back it receded. So he just rolled on his back, playing like a whale, humming a few tunes and saying a few prayers. Notice he never gave up. How many people have we been exposed to in the course of our lives, in a situation like that would have just plain given up. About 1800 that same day a Vietnamese fishing boat came by and hauled him out of the water - some twelve hours later.
Even those peasant fishermen could figure out that this moose would never fit in the cockpit of an A4 Skyhawk. They turned him upside down and inside out which garnered them absolutely nothing. Remember, he had prudently left everything back on the ship in his locker. Picture yourself being tortured to admit that you were a CIA agent who entered the water in Coronado, California to swim ten thousand miles across the Pacific to infiltrate their shores!
When "the authorities" got him ashore they showed Doug piles of materials allegedly written by Yankee Air Pirates who had been captured before him. [95% of those captured in North Vietnam had been tortured; were not offered the option of death; and were made to give more than the Name, Rank, Serial Number and Date of Birth sequence permitted by the Military Code of Conduct and required by International Law. Doug recognized that something was amiss; but, as he said later, "Geeze, they’re officers; they must know what they are doing." So he decided that his best ploy was to pretend to be stupid.
He got them off target by comparing farms in North Vietnam and South Dakota. He didn’t realize that even then the Communists were categorizing him to gauge his usefulness to their cause. His dad had about ten motel units, numberless vehicles and all kinds of land - but no water buffalo. No water buffalo meant in Vietnamese parlance that he was a "poor peasant".
This is just as well, as Communists had murdered over 20 million "rich peasants" in their various revolutions, because those folks are unreconstructed capitalists. A little be miffed at first, Doug caught on right away - he is a quick study - it was to his advantage to play out the poor peasant act to the bitter end.
Tired of the verbal jousting the Communist cadres told him that he would have to write an anti-war statement for them. He joyously agreed. The interrogators were dumbfounded. This was the first Yankee to agree to do anything without being tortured first. They brought out the paper, ink and pens. He admired them all and then stated: "But small thing. I can’t read or write. I’m a poor peasant." This was quite credible to the Vietnamese since their poor peasants could neither read nor write. So they assigned a Vietnamese to him to teach him penmanship, spelling, grammar and sentence structure. Immediately his learning curve went flat. Eventually, the interrogators gave up in disgust, writing a confession for him and having him sign it in an illegible scrawl. He admitted to the war crime of shelling the presidential birthplace of Ho Chi Mihn and signed it as Seaman Apprentice Douglas Brent Hegdahl III United States Navy Reserve, Commanding Officer, USS Canberra. No one has ever seen this piece of paper.
Doug was shuffled around from pillar to post, since his captors didn’t know where he would fit into their propaganda plans. One mistake they made was to put him in for a while with Joe Crecca, an Air Force officer who had developed a method of creating the most organized memory bank we possessed to record the names of pilots shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam. Joe took this young Seaman and, recognizing the potential, painstakingly taught Doug not only 256 names, but also, the method of memorizing, cross referencing and retrieving those names. It was no easy task that Joe had set for himself for it was not intuitively obvious to Doug the value of such mental gymnastics.
It was a hot summer day when I first met Doug. I was in solitary confinement again. The Communists did not care for me, which was OK because I didn’t like them either. My cell door opened and here was this big moose standing in his skivie shorts [prison uniform of the day]: "My name is Seaman Douglas Brent Hegdahl, Sir. What’s yours?" It is awful hard to look dignified when you are standing in your underwear, knock kneed, ding toed, pot bellied, unwashed and unshaven for 100 days. I automatically recited: "Dick Stratton, Lieutenant Commander, USS Ticonderoga." Immediately I saw that I probably made a mistake as his eyes rolled back in his head and you could see what he was thinking: "Cripes, another officer!" But notice that instinctively he asked the critical and most important question for survival: "Who is senior?" The rule we lived by was: "If I am senior I will take charge; if junior, I will obey."
The Communists took a siesta for two hours every afternoon which was a good deal for us as we were free from torture and harassment. I was laying on the floor on my bed board and Doug was skipping, yes, skipping around the room. I asked: "Doug, what are you doing?" He paused for a moment, looked me in the eye and cryptically said: "Skipping, Sir" and continued to skip. A stupid question; a stupid answer. After a moment, I again queried: "What’ya doin’ that for?" This stopped him for a moment. He paused and cocked his head thoughtfully, smiled and replied: "You got anything better to do, Sir?" I didn’t. He continued skipping. I guess he did learn one thing from boot camp. You can say anything you want to an officer as long as you smile and say "sir".

Last edited by Dozer523; 12-01-2009 at 13:40.
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